Pluralism document attacks status quo

The release of the document comes in the wake of the apparent failure to secure agreement on a proposed solution to the conversion crisis.

Earlier this month, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate rejected the Ne'eman Committee's recommendation to involve Reform and Conservative rabbis in preparing prospective converts while retaining Orthodox control over the actual conversions.

The Lubotzky-Beilin document, while backing the Ne'eman Committee approach, is much broader in scope. Indeed, it goes beyond the recent debate over the lack of recognition for non-Orthodox streams in Israel.

It addresses some of the most hotly disputed issues confronting Israeli society, including the notion of civil marriages and burials, the broadening of Jewish education to reflect all the religious movements and military service for the fervently religious.

It was drawn up with the help of Meimad, the moderate Orthodox movement, and Drachim, an institute dedicated to bridging the religious and secular divide — a gap that in recent months has occasionally turned violent.

But the ambitious covenant's chances of success may be similar to that of the Ne'eman Committee.

Dozens of secular and moderate Orthodox leaders are ready to back the pact, say Beilin and Lubotzky, who see the accord as a framework for discussion and legislation.

But without support from Israel's increasingly powerful fervently religious community, say experts, the initiative may be doomed to failure.

"This is not an ideological statement; it's a practical document listing the problems disputed in Israel and making suggestions for solving each one," Lubotzky said.

The goal, he explained, is to solve the quandary of the "status quo" — the agreements on religion and state struck between David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and the Orthodox religious establishment.

"The idea of the status quo was to freeze issues of religion and state so that we won't fight with each other," said Lubotzky. "But the truth is, we are fighting all the time, and both sides are unhappy with the status quo."

To deal with the problem, the covenant addresses a dilemma posed by the fundamental definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

"The democratic and pluralistic character of Israeli society has been progressively deteriorating," it says. "On the other hand, there is a widespread feeling that the State of Israel's Jewish character has been weakened, and Israel may become a society in which Jewish culture is not central."

To solve the problem, the two lawmakers are promoting a Jewish education curriculum to be taught alongside a curriculum on democracy and human rights in all public schools.

The covenant also calls for setting up a framework for civil marriages, divorces and burials. But the Chief Rabbinate is unlikely to relinquish its control over these rituals.

The document also recommends a trade-off regarding the public observance of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays: The Orthodox would agree to allow places of entertainment to open, as well as limited public transportation. At the same time, commerce and industry would be shut down.

This could be relatively easy to implement, since in many Israeli cities, aside from transportation, this arrangement is already a fait accompli.

The covenant also envisions compulsory military service for fervently religious Jews, who now can avoid service by studying in yeshivas.

Beilin said this issue was not created in an effort to alienate the fervently religious, or haredi community, from the proposed accord. "We would like to open a dialogue with them," he said.

But Knesset member Shlomo Benizri, of the fervently religious Orthodox Shas Party, is not looking for such a dialogue.

"Secular Israelis can live their lives today as they please," he said. "There is no need for a covenant when there are no problems. We are in favor of tolerance while maintaining the status quo."

Benizri need not worry, according to Moshe Lissak, a sociology professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and an expert on the rifts in Israeli society.

"I doubt this covenant has a chance," he said. "It is an agreement between the most moderate religious Zionists and the secular public, and it doesn't address some of the focal issues, such as the massive funds that flow to [haredi] yeshivas and allow them to constantly increase their power."